Beliefnet
At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Regardless of how it is constituted, whether it is “democratic” or otherwise, no government poses a larger threat to liberty than a government that is at war.

War is the mother of all crises and, as Rahm Emmanuel memorably—and rightly—said, crises are pregnant with opportunities for politicians and activists that they otherwise wouldn’t have. It is in moments of crisis, real or imagined, that government has its best opportunity to accumulate ever greater concentrations of power, for it is during crises that the people expect for their government to assert itself in ways that wouldn’t ordinarily be tolerated.

Yet today’s self-avowed “conservatives” advocate on behalf of, not just war, but war without end, for “Islamic terror” is an amorphous container into which any number of contents can be inserted.

Interminable war means, necessarily, the interminable growth of government.

And where the expansion of government is interminable, so too is the diminution of liberty.

Matters can’t be otherwise, which is why it is at once exasperating and laughable that the very same people who indefatigably defended the so-called “Patriot Act” now act shocked that it has been abused by the Obama administration.  If they had an iota of wisdom, they would have recognized way back when that the Patriot Act itself is a standing abuse.

Instead, one of its authors, Republican Jim Sensenbrenner, maintains that he is “extremely disturbed by what appears to be an overbroad interpretation” of the law he crafted.  In a letter to Eric Holder, Sensenbrenner asserts that while he is confident that the Patriot Act “appropriately balanced national security concerns and civil rights,” he nevertheless “always worried about potential abuses.”

There are four things of which to take note here.

First, whether “what appears to be an overbroad interpretation” coincides with reality is left to be seen.  The fact of the matter is that, overbroad or not, at issue is an interpretation of the Patriot Act.  The latter lends itself to precisely this kind of interpretation—as its critics noted back at the time of its birth.

Second, Sensenbrenner actually admits, albeit inadvertently, that in drafting the Patriot Act, he felt the need to achieve a “balance” or compromise between “civil rights”—i.e. Constitutional liberties—and “national security concerns”—i.e. greater government power. To put it more bluntly, he concedes that the Patriot Act required trading off some of the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution in exchange for granting the government an even greater scope than it already possessed.

Third, although he says now that he “always” had concerns about “potential abuses,” Sensenbrenner was quite dismissive of critics who have expressed these same concerns.

In 2006, he said that not only did the Patriot Act have a “stellar record” of being abuse-free, but “congressional negotiators added more than 30 civil liberty safeguards not included in current law to ensure that [its] authorities would not be abused in the future.”  Sensenbrenner was indignant as he concluded that this is “still not enough for some.”

As even he now recognizes, it was for good reason that his assurances were “not enough for some.”

Finally, legislation is just that.  It is no more potent than the ink and paper of which it consists.  Real conservatives, and real statesmen, have always known that the true laws and “constitution” of a people are embodied in their habits and traditions.  Legislation should distill this shared experience—and vindicate it.

Furthermore, paper laws, like paper constitutions, are all too susceptible to the predations of the power-hungry.

But Republican Sensenbrenner, along with several of his fellow partisans, continues to defend the Patriot Act and the entire NSA surveillance program.  Take George W. Bush’s former speech writer and Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen.  “Signal intelligence,” Thiessen says, is the only feasible and effective way to “protect the country.” Upon reminding us that “the programs exposed in these leaks did not begin on Barack Obama’s watch,” Thiessen declares that the current president’s continuation of “Bush-era counterterrorism policy… is not an outrage—it is a victory.”

That Obama is building upon Bush’s already massive surveillance program may very well be a “victory.”

But it is a victory for the champions of Gargantuan Government—not the lovers of liberty.

 

In the latest issue of National Review, Rich Lowry promotes his latest book on Abraham Lincoln while blasting away at those of our 16th president’s contemporary critics on the political right—those to whom he derisively refers as “Lincoln haters.

And here we have it: staring back at him in the one-dimensional caricature to which Lowry reduces Lincoln’s critics is the reflection of his own argument.  Not unsurprisingly—self-awareness and self-righteousness do not a union make—Lowry doesn’t see it. But if he wasn’t blinded by both the certainty of his own cause as well as his contempt for the “people-owning libertarians” who inhabit places like “the fever swamp at Lewrockwell.com,” he would have recognized that the path toward the destruction of one’s opponents is almost always paved with lies and not a little irrationality.

Lowry’s argument suffers from a poverty that is at once intellectual and moral.

His opponents, the “Lincoln haters,” are people who, in Lowry’s estimation, “apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery.”

There are few topics in all of human history, to say nothing of American history, regarding which there exists as much literature as that of “the American Civil War.”  That is, it has always been and remains an immensely complex and, thus, controversial issue—for most people.  For Lowry, however, the matter is quite simple: either we join him in revering Lincoln as “perhaps the foremost proponent of opportunity in all of American history” or else we support slavery.

So, because they reject Lincoln, his “libertarian” critics support, or at least are not sufficiently opposed to, the enslavement of blacks.  This is outrageous.  It is also idiotic, so much so that even those upon whom he sets his sights should be more than a bit embarrassed for Lowry.

For Lincoln’s critics, past and present, the abolition of slavery never trumped all countervailing considerations.  This makes them wrong and disreputable, for the abolition of slavery is an end that justifies the use of any and all means. This is what Lowry appears to be saying.  Yet before the tribunal of this reasoning, the country’s founders who Lowry praises stand equally condemned—whether they sympathized with slavery or abhorred it.

There would have been no America had those of the country’s founders who opposed slavery insisted on its abolition.  In other words, there would have been no union of colonies turned independent states had slavery’s nemeses at America’s birth pushed too hard for its demise.  With the exception of hard leftists, everyone else, including neoconservatives like Lowry, have long insisted upon this point in defending the founders. However, given his critique of the Old South and its contemporary apologists, Lowry undermines this defense.

Clearly, none of the founders ascribed categorical importance to ending slavery.  Even when they acknowledged its evil, the men who ratified the Constitution nevertheless prized above all else the sovereignty of these United States.  If the latter promised to come about only at the cost of tolerating slavery while seeking to phase it out gradually, then this was the cost that they were willing to pay.

If Lowry is right and Lincoln’s critics must “hate federal power more than they abhor slavery,” then the founders and framers must have been guilty of the same.  If Lincoln’s critics are disreputable, then the founders were as well.  In fact, consistency demands that Lowry recognize the latter as retroactive or honorary Lincoln haters.

Philosophically speaking, the distinction between “federal power” and “slavery” is one without a difference.  This, at any rate, is the verdict that the founders drew, and it is the one that “Lincoln haters” past and present would have to infer as well.  In short, “federal power” is dreaded precisely because it amounts to slavery—the enslavement of the sovereign states by the central government.

The concept of a state implies the concept of sovereignty, and the latter in turn implies the existence of an authority that is indivisible.  By the very logic of the notion, then, a state has the authority to unite with or disengage (secede) from other sovereign agents—for whatever reasons.  This authority is denied once the sovereign in question is subject to compulsion by some force outside of itself.  Its integrity as a state is then undermined, and it is reduced to a territory or a fief, i.e. the analog of a slave.

Perhaps none of this is worth delving into, for Lowry’s essay makes it painfully clear that he is about as interested in logic and philosophy as he is interested in history.

On June 6, Richard Cravatts’ article, “No Free Speech for Exposers of Campus Anti-Semitism” was published at Front Page Magazine.

Cravatts relays the challenges of Tammi Rossman-Benjamin.  The latter is “a lecturer at UC [University of California] Santa Cruz and co-founder of the AMCHA Initiative, an organization that investigates, documents, educates about, and combats anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in the U.S.”  More specifically, Rossman-Benjamin has been waging a campaign against what she describes as “an advanced anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian discourse” that has managed to exclude all alternative narratives.  As a result, untold numbers of California college students have been brainwashed into believing the worst about Israel while her defenders, particularly her Jewish defenders, have been forced to endure a hostile environment.

The university should be a hostile environment for neither students nor their instructors—regardless of whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish, and regardless of the issue.  But it will surprise none of its observers, and surprise even less those of us who inhabit it, that Israel is not well regarded in the contemporary university.  In fact, whether or not Israel is ever mentioned is neither here nor there: to know the university is to know that she promises to be despised.

That there is “an advanced anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian discourse” that has “dominated” the University of California is due to the fact that it is but another variation of a much larger but equally advanced anti-Western discourse that has dominated institutions of higher learning everywhere for decades.

Interestingly, for as sophisticated as the members of the professorial class are thought to be, the framework within which they ply their respective disciplines in the liberal arts and humanities is simple to the point of being simplistic.

Actually, it is grossly simplistic.

From the standpoint of this framework, the cosmos consists of two, and only two, types of beings: Oppressors and the Oppressed.  Moreover, there are no individuals, but only collectives, abstract categories defined in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic class, and region.

This worldview I have elsewhere referred to as “the Creed.”  Anyone who spends any amount of time, whether as a student or an instructor, will soon come to know the Creed well enough.

According to the Creed, the white, Western, Christian, heterosexual man (or “male”) is the universe’s villain extraordinaire.  All others are the victims of his predatory machinations.

Of course, within this scheme there are further gradations.  The medieval thinkers subscribed to what has been called “the Great Chain of Being.”  At the apex of the chain is the greatest of beings, God.  Angels and, then, humans, rank lower. Beneath them are animals, then plants.  But at the bottom of the scale is the worst of beings: Satan.

The idea here is that the greater the being, the morally better it is. Conversely, the less being something has, the worse it is.

The Creed involves something similar. Only here it is the white, Western, Christian, heterosexual male that occupies something like the position that Satan occupies in the Great Chain of Being.  At the same time, women and non-whites rank higher along the scale.  Still, while white women and white homosexual men are perennial victims of sexism and homophobia, respectively, they are nevertheless morally inferior to non-whites of both genders and all sexual orientations, for in addition to being subjected to these evils, non-whites are also prey to racism—and there is nothing more egregious than racism.

The anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian narrative against which Rossman-Benjamin rails fits seamlessly into the Creed.  Judaism, though having originated in the East, has been integral to Western civilization.  And Israel, with its economic, cultural, and military might, is the outpost of Western civilization in the Islamic world.  Palestinians, in stark contrast, have none of the affluence or power of their Israeli rivals.  They are also non-Western, Muslim, and, for the most part, non-white.  Their conflict with Israelis emblematizes for guardians of the Creed the perpetual contest that it identifies as the essence of life, the struggle between Oppressor and Oppressed.

The Creed is the orthodoxy of the contemporary academy.  Unfortunately for Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, she is not likely to succeed in undermining the “anti-Israel and pro-Palestine discourse” that has “dominated” the university until she first defeats the Creed that it expresses.

 

The latest in Lincoln polemics comes courtesy of Rich Lowry, editor of National Review.  In the latest issue of the latter, Lowry both promotes his new work and takes aim at those of our 16th president’s detractors that are to Lowry’s political right—the “Lincoln haters.”

The “Lincoln haters,” Lowry insists, are limited “mostly, but not entirely,” to a libertarian “fringe” whose members “apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery.”  Chief among these fringe characters is Lincoln scholar Thomas DiLorenzo, who Lowry accuses of having “made a cottage industry of publishing unhinged Lincoln-hating polemics.”

To sense what sort of argument Lowry’s promises to be, the reader should note that before it even gets under way, its author seeks to undermine the character of his opponents—not the substance or form of their reasoning.  His interlocutors are “haters,” on “the fringe,” and even, as in the case of DiLorenzo, “unhinged.”  From the outset, Lowry tries to stack the deck in his favor by portraying his rivals as both irrational and disreputable.

Ironically, in doing so, he deprives himself of the high ground, both intellectually and morally, for Lowry’s argument, it is painfully clear, has little to do with history and everything to do with contemporary politics.

“The debate over Lincoln on the Right is so important,” Lowry writes, “because it can be seen, in part, as a proxy for the larger argument over whether conservatism should read itself out of the American mainstream or—in this hour of its discontent—dedicate itself to a Lincolnian program of opportunity and uplift consistent with its limited-government principles.”

Lowry wastes no time in spelling out for the undecided just why conservatives must embrace the course that he has chosen.  “A conservatism that rejects Lincoln is a conservatism that wants to confine itself to an irritable irrelevance to 21st century America and neglect what should be the great project of reviving it as a country of aspiration.”

Now, being neither a Lincoln scholar nor even an historian, I am neither a “hater” nor a deifier of Lincoln. I am, however, a philosopher, a political philosopher, and a conservative political philosopher to boot.  As such, I confess to being at a loss to account for how any self-avowed conservative, any proponent of “limited government,” could look to, of all people, Abraham Lincoln as a source of inspiration.

Lincoln presided over America during what remains, by leaps and bounds, its darkest hour.  More tellingly, he was, at the very least, instrumental in making it its darkest hour, for Lincoln waged a war unprecedented (in our history) for its death and destruction, and he waged it against Americans.  Whether or not he had the constitutional right to do so, whether or not the South was the aggressor, are utterly irrelevant considerations.

To repeat, for our purposes here, Lincoln’s legal and moral prerogatives or lack thereof simply do not matter.  What matters is that for four long years, the President of the United States conducted the bloodiest war that, before or since, our nation had ever witnessed, a war that laid waste to much of the country, to say nothing of the genuinely federal character of the government that the Framers of the Constitution ratified.

And he waged this war against his fellow citizens, men and women who sought to peaceably secede from the Union—not usurp Lincoln or the federal government.

Again, whether Lincoln’s was a morally worthwhile cause or whether he had the legal right to do what he did are matters for historians and moralists to sort through.  The point is that whatever else may be said of Lincoln, it is difficult to see how, with Lowry, we can say of him that he was “perhaps the foremost proponent of opportunity in all of American history,” “the paladin of individual initiative, the worshipper of the Founding Fathers, and the advocate of self-control [.]”  In what universe, one must wonder, can a self-declared champion of conservatism, like Lowry, regard Lincoln as “a fellow traveler with today’s conservatives”?

But maybe that’s the point. Maybe today’s “conservatives” do need Lincoln, for given their obsession with fundamentally transforming the Islamic world into a bastion of Democracy and their own country into the melting pot of the universe, today’s conservatives care as much about preserving the decentralized character of American government as did Lincoln.

As a result, they are about as conservative as him as well.